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Figures obtained by the Labour Party following a Freedom of Information request show that 42 out of 96 trusts in England had to shut their maternity wards at least once in 2016, with closures totalling 382 occasions. Forty of the 136 trusts in England did not respond to the request for information, suggesting the total figure could indeed be higher.
The total number of closures across the trusts has followed a year on year increase, with the total number of closures in 2014 totalling 225, compared to 375 in 2015 and 382 in 2016.
A number of reasons were cited for the closures including insufficient staffing levels and full bed occupancy. Of these closures, some lasted more than 24 hours, with many trusts having to close on multiple occasions – 10 trusts shut on more than 10 separate occasions each.
Some of the closures included:
National Childbirth Trust senior policy adviser Elizabeth Duff said it was “appalling” that pregnant women “are pushed from pillar to post in the throes of labour.”
“New maternity policy in England stresses the need for locally based services which must have enough midwives so that women are not turned away in labour.”
Sean O’Sullivan, Head of health and social policy at the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) said:
“Midwife managers work incredibly hard to keep services safe and to provide high quality care, but they cannot do this without the correct levels of funding and resources to employ enough midwives.”
With a shortage of 3500 full-time midwives according to the RCM, drastic measures such as closing maternity units on a temporary basis, are a last resort in order to maintain the safety of expectant mothers and newborn babies.
The increasing regularity with which maternity units are closing raises concern among medical negligence solicitors at Blackwater Law as not only do these closures impact those who are unable to go to the ward of their choice, but may also have wider implications for those who are already on the ward. With maternity units frequently operating at full capacity and beyond, access to specialist staff and waiting times may go beyond the optimum. This may in extreme cases lead to delayed diagnosis of certain conditions such as pre-eclampsia or a delay in vital decisions such as the requirement for a caesarean section in certain high risk pregnancies.
Whilst the Department of Health state there are now an extra 2000 midwives compared to May 2010 and an additional 6500 currently in training the potential for patient care to be compromised remains, and will have to be addressed to ensure patient safety and reduce the incidence of of new mothers pursuing medical negligence compensation following poor medical care.